When I was a kid I watched M*A*S*H religiously. As an adult I watch it and think, “WTF were my parents thinking letting me watch this????” (I also think “Why the hell would you not object to your 13 year old daughter reading Ian Fleming when everyone else were reading stupid horse books?” But that’s a post for another day)
M*A*S*H became available this weekend on Netflix streaming, and it just so happens I have a three day weekend…and yes, I’m letting my 8-year old watch. Because as inappropriate as it can be sometimes, not just about sex but about war and man’s inhumanity to man at times, it also has some lessons that I needed to learn at the time and that I want son j to learn as well.
Which brings me to Odessa Cleveland. Ms. Cleveland played Lt. Ginger Bayliss on M*A*S*H from 1972-1975, but I remember her best from the episode “Dear Dad…Three”. In this episode a wounded soldier asks Hawkeye and Trapper to make sure “they give him the right color blood”. In true Hawkeye and Trapper manner they give him a lesson (involving painting him with iodine). When he makes a remark to Lt Bayliss she snaps that she is a lieutenant and makes it clear that regardless of her sex and her color she is due the respect of her rank.
And I thought “Damn straight!”.
At the end of episode the soldier, lesson learned, salutes her. Even as a kid I knew that problems are not solved that easily, things aren’t resolved in 30 minutes, and in 1973 some 20 years after the actual Korean War ended African American women weren’t afforded the respect they earned. *
But Lt. Ginger Bayliss showed me they should be. If you’re a writer and you think your characters aren’t real, think again. Just as I count Elizabeth Bennet as a “real” character and influence on my life, so I count Lt. Ginger Bayliss. Anytime a fictional character teaches you something they become part of your life – they become part of you. They shape who you are, and if you have children, they help to shape the parent you ultimately become.
Role models don’t always come from where you’d expect. Sometimes they come from snarky, cynical 1/2 hour tv shows and from an actress whose name you might not recognize. The important thing is: there’s a lesson there, and you damn well better learn it.
Trust me, you’ll be better off for it.
*Yes, I know that Altman based M*A*S*H on Vietnam